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A flâneur’s walk: Looking at Northampton through a writer’s eyes

  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.

    KEVIN GUTTING
    Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.

  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.<br/>

    KEVIN GUTTING
    Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.

  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.

    KEVIN GUTTING
    Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.

  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>"I'm always rushing from one thing to another, I’m always late — I’m not really a flâneur at all," Betsy Wheeler says.

    KEVIN GUTTING
    "I'm always rushing from one thing to another, I’m always late — I’m not really a flâneur at all," Betsy Wheeler says.

  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.
  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.<br/>
  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Betsy Wheeler of Northampton has written "Mental Detours", the first issue in the "Flaneur Walks" pamphlet series by Shape and Nature Press.
  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>"I'm always rushing from one thing to another, I’m always late — I’m not really a flâneur at all," Betsy Wheeler says.

In mid-19th-century Paris, a literary figure known as the “flâneur” became a fixture of the city, a person who strolled the streets and drank in the experience for artistic inspiration and contemplation. As the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in the early 1860s, for the flâneur, “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.”

The definition of flâneur is somewhat varied — in some cases, it’s taken to mean “idler” or “loafer” — but a more common definition in French is “a person who walks the city to experience it.” That’s the philosophy behind a new series of pamphlets that a Greenfield publishing company has unveiled, in which local writers have used Northampton as a muse for inspiring others to get off the beaten track and look at the city in a new way — ideally firing their creativity in the process.

The first pamphlet, “Mental Detours,” has been written by Florence poet Betsy Wheeler, who will lead a walking and writing tour of downtown Northampton July 11 at 7 p.m. that’s based on her booklet. The tour, which lasts about an hour and a half, is designed to get participants to view parts of the city through a different lens and, through the use of prompts, use those viewpoints for impromptu writing.

“We all have habits and ways of usually doing things,” said Wheeler, 38. “The idea behind this is to get out of that routine, to kind of disorient yourself a little and look at things from an unfamiliar vantage point ... hopefully that lets you notice things that you might not have before.”

As one example, Wheeler’s booklet asks readers to stand on the bike path bridge above Main Street and recite a poem by William Carlos Williams, then make observations from the bridge and write them down as images; her booklet includes blank space for writing.

What’s called the “Flâneur Walks Pamphlet Series” is the work of Shape & Nature Press, a small publishing company started a few years ago in Greenfield. Lead editor Maria Williams-Russell, a poet who directed the former Green Street Poetry Series in Northampton, says Shape & Nature aims to produce poetry, fiction and “creative literary projects” that are designed to engage readers in different ways.

Along those lines, says Williams-Russell, Shape & Nature developed the series of booklets — a second is due later this summer — in part as a response to a Brooklyn, N.Y., nonprofit, Elastic City, that commissions artists to develop walking tours of New York City and other locales. Those tours include audience participation and artistic events, from poetry recitations to recording people’s conversations.

“We really liked that idea, and we approached them about designing some booklets for their walks,” said Williams-Russell. “They didn’t really need that, but then we started thinking of doing something on our own.”

Shape & Nature approached Betsy Wheeler to create the first Flâneur Walk of the series, as Williams-Russell was aware of her varied work. A graduate of the MFA program in poetry at Ohio State University, Wheeler is the author of the 2012 poetry collection, “Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room,” and is also the managing director for the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a program of intensive workshops for adults and teens in fiction, poetry and nonfiction.

Wheeler, who previously attended the Juniper Institute as a scholarship student, also designs and makes poetry chapbooks.

“We thought Betsy had a great skill set to bring,” Williams-Russell said.

The next booklet will outline a very different kind of Flâneur Walk in Northampton, she noted, this time written and developed by poet Connolly Ryan, who teaches literature at UMass.

Taking a closer look

Wheeler said she was thrilled when she was asked last year to develop the first pamphlet for the walk series — but not long after she’d agreed to do it, she added with a laugh, she became terrified.

“I’m always rushing from one thing to another, I’m always late — I’m not really a flâneur at all,” she said. “When I come into Northampton, I’m not really observing and experiencing the city. I’m looking for a parking space, searching for a quarter for the meter, thinking about where I’m going to get coffee.

“I started getting really worried about how I was going to do this, but once I slowed down and started thinking about it, forced myself to take a detour, I enjoyed it.” Putting together the exercise helped her come up with material for several new poems, Wheeler added.

Wheeler, who has also taught poetry classes, says she’s done a good amount of writing over the years in coffee shops, so she opted to start her tour from The Roost, the downtown cafe at the corner of Bridge and Market streets. There, people on the July 11 tour — or on any self-guided tour using the “Mental Detours” pamphlet — will spend several minutes doing writing that’s prompted by certain words and phrases, as well as by observations they make in the cafe.

From there, the walk heads down Main Street and ascends to the bike path bridge to recite the William Carlos Williams poem, “To a Poor Old Woman,” a minimalist work from 1934. Aside from liking Williams’ work, Wheeler says she thought of him when, standing on the bike path bridge, she looked at the old, weathered railroad bridge immediately adjacent.

“I just thought ‘Paterson,’” she said, referring to Williams’ birth in northern New Jersey (he was born and grew up in Rutherford, N.J., right next to Paterson). “I liked seeing that kind of grittier side of Northampton.”

“Mental Detours” invites readers to walk along the bike path to Pleasant Street, making observations and taking notes of different things — buildings, overheard conversations, the way people are dressed, the play of light and shadow — and then walk back to and along Main Street. The main idea, Wheeler says, is to record images and impressions, think about the emotions or feelings they generate, and write about that — either as poetry, as a loose essay, or whatever feels right.

“I’m a poet, so I’ve kind of framed this walk through poetry, but there’s no one way to do this — there’s no right or wrong,” she said. “It’s really about opening yourself up to the sense of just being out and about, kind of feeding your imagination.”

The July 11 tour will also enable participants to share what they’ve written with one another if they want to, Wheeler said. “Writing is mostly a solitary exercise, so one of the fun things for me is to talk to other writers and share things with them when I can.”

She notes that her father, who’s an art historian, creates art walks that focus on specific architectural details of buildings in cities, while other tours often focus on historically significant sites.

“That’s not what this is,” she said of her walk. “But when you take the time to look around, you can still see some interesting details.” She pointed to a small brick building along the bike path, just south of the Main Street bridge, that has a large “K” on one wall. “What’s that all about?”

Williams-Russell, the Shape & Nature editor, says the press plans to add additional flâneur walks for other communities, and not just locally: The press is doing preliminary work for one in Philadelphia.

“We like to think this is a whole new way of looking and experiencing a community,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The cost for taking part in the July 11 Flaneur Walk at 7 p.m. in Northampton is $35 and includes a copy of “Mental Detours” and a free beverage and desert. To register, visit shapeandnature.com and go to the bottom of the page.

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